Identifying Lameness in a Horse 

 Lameness is defined as an abnormality in the horse’s gait. Lameness can be difficult to identify, but there are tips and tricks to help you decipher which leg is painful, where in the leg the pain is located, and therefore what may have caused it. Some common causes of lameness in horses are: 

  • hoof abscess  
  • joint pain and/or swelling 
  • muscle or soft tissue injury 
  • bone fracture 


When describing lameness in horses, most vets will give a grade or score out of five to the lameness, which are defined as follows: 

  • Grade 0 – no lameness is detected 
  • Grade 1 – the lameness is hard to observe and may not be consistent 
  • Grade 2 – the lameness may be observable, but only in certain circumstances (e.g on a circle) 
  • Grade 3 – the lameness is observable at trot in all circumstances 
  • Grade 4 – the lameness is observable at walk in all circumstances 
  • Grade 5 – the horse is non-weight bearing or unable to move 


More serious lameness issues, such as fractures and abscesses, are very obvious to spot and would be graded a four or five. A more subtle lameness may be harder to spot but there are steps you can take to try and which leg may be affected. 

  • Firstly, you will need to find a flat, and relatively smooth piece of ground to walk or trot your horse on – a concrete pathway or hard, level dirt ground will work. Ideally, someone else will lead your horse for you so that you can observe your horse from all sides.  
  • Firstly, watch your horse walk from a side-on position. A front leg lameness will show with either a shortened stride length or with a ‘head bob’ – when the painful leg hits the ground, the horse’s head and neck will rise, as they are trying to not put as much weight on that limb. A hind limb lameness is harder to spot from side on but may still be visible by comparing stride length and over track. 
  • If you suspect a hind limb lameness, you should watch your horse walk away from you in a straight line. An indication of hind limb lameness may present as a raising of the hip when the lame leg hits the ground, so you will be comparing the levels of the hip bones and how even they are throughout the strides. 
  • If you still haven’t been able to decipher which leg, you can repeat the above steps in trot. Some lameness will only be visible at the faster gaits and trot will allow you to compare either head bobs or hip heights. 
  • You can also try walking and trotting your horse on the lunge to see if any lameness is made worse on a circle. 


Once you have identified the lame leg, you can inspect the limb from the hoof up, looking for any signs of injury, swelling or abnormalities that might be causing the lameness. If you have found lameness and a corresponding injury, or you suspect your horse might be lame but cannot find the cause, you should contact your vet and arrange a consultation. A slight lameness might not look serious, but if left untreated, could turn into a more complicated issue.   


Written by Emma H. 


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